BOSTON — When a large press corps turned out in Hartford, Conn., for this month's debut of the women's American Basketball League, postgame questions were occasionally fired with overseas accents. Why the international attention to an event of primarily local interest?
The answer was clear afterwards in the crowd surrounding Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a high-profile benchwarmer for the visiting Richmond (Va.) Rage.
Joyner-Kersee stood literally back-to-back with Dawn Staley in the bowels of the Hartford Civic Center. The reporters around Joyner-Kersee far outnumbered those around Staley, the playmaker for the gold medal-winning United States women's Olympic basketball team in Atlanta.
Let Staley analyze Richmond's loss to the New England Blizzard. Joyner-Kersee would field questions about why, after a spectacular international track and field career that isn't quite over, she was here - here in the ABL, here in a sport she hadn't played competitively since her college days 10 years ago. Newspapers from from across the Atlantic, where track and field enjoys much greater popularity than it does in the US, were eager to know.
So with all the modesty and grace people have come to expect from her, Joyner-Kersee answered questions about this latest, surprise chapter in her life.
Was it money that prompted her decision to play pro ball, someone wanted to know.
"Financially I don't need to be out here," she said without mentioning lucrative endorsements and appearance fees. "This is an opportunity I didn't have 10 or 11 years ago. I didn't want to sit at home and say, 'Oh, I wish I coulda or shoulda.' So I challenged myself to see if I could get in shape and see if I could play in the league."
Not that Joyner-Kersee was out of shape. Only, two months ago she was competing in her fourth Olympics. An injury forced her to withdraw from the seven-event heptathlon, which she won in 1988 and '92. But later she returned to win a long jump bronze medal in her Olympic swan song. Such grit earned her the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award at last week's Women's Sports Foundation banquet.
In her first ABL game, Joyner-Kersee saw only a few minutes of action. She sank a pair of free throws and afterward was upbeat about getting into the rhythm of the fast-paced pro game.
"Running all the time makes it quite different from the college game I played," she said.
When she was a basketball and track star pursuing a history degree at the University of California, Los Angeles in the mid 1980s, her basketball specialty was defense. She was an all-PAC-10 conference choice in 1985 as UCLA became the first team to beat the University of Southern California led by Cheryl Miller twice in one season.
Sitting on the Rage bench in Hartford, she heard fans call her name, but felt obligated to ignore them. "In track and field I can go over and sign autographs, she said. "Now I have to concentrate on the game, because I don't want to be the one taking away from the team."
Bobby Kersee, her husband and longtime track coach, says playing on a team is particularly attractive to his wife after years of going it alone athletically. "She doesn't have the individual pressures," he says. "She has the possibility of uplifting somebody or having somebody uplift her."
Richmond coach Lisa Boyer has worked patiently to bring along Jackie's game, says Kersee, who works for the National Hockey League's St. Louis Blues as a strength and conditioning coach. He says he had to encourage his wife to relocate to Richmond and accept the fact that as a professional athlete she couldn't continue to live in St. Louis. They rendezvous as often as possible. Although Joyner-Kersee's track career is not totally over (next summer's outdoor world championship in Athens also beckons), Bobby Kersee says he's pleased that his wife is having a "fun" time in the ABL.
"This is good for her and it's good for me," he adds. "It gives me a vacation from pushing her in the weight room and getting her up in the morning to run.... She finishes her career the same way it started and, more importantly, she can be involved in the women's movement."